The Unfulfilled Promise of Public Education is in Even Greater Focus a Year After the Capitol Disgrace

It's been a year since the Capitol riot on January 6, 2021, and the failure of public education to achieve what many of its supporters promised - unify varied people and shape them into 'virtuous' American citizens – has only become clearer.

Soon after the incident last year, I wrote extensively about the promise of public education and its inability to deliver on that promise. You may go into that article for a more in-depth examination. However, one point in what I stated deserves further attention:

By trying to encompass diverse people, public schooling ends up fostering political and social conflicts which, by their adversarial nature, are more likely to have polarizing than unifying effects. Public schooling forces diverse people to fight over whose values, history, or preferred policies the schools will uphold.

If we desire a tolerant, peaceful society, arguably the worst way to do it is to force people into high‐​stakes, zero‐​sum contests. Public education, on the other hand, achieves just that: it divides individuals into camps to select whose ideals will control schools, who will have their history taught, and so on. This is fundamentally polarizing, resulting in perpetual us against them mentalities. It is also avoidable, as many other countries have come to recognize, by allowing funding to follow children to schools their families choose.

While American public schools have been social and cultural battlefields for their entire existence, 2021 was an especially war‐​torn year, as I summarized a couple of weeks ago. 2021 saw a record number of conflicts logged on Cato’s Public Schooling Battle Map, and the entire country has seen searing images of screaming crowds at school board meetings, fistfights, arrests, and federal law enforcement called upon to investigate “domestic terrorism” by public schooling combatants. This as neighbors have had to fight one another to determine whose views on intensely emotional subjects such as racial justice, sexuality and gender, and health and child development, would prevail.

People would no longer be driven into warring educational camps if money followed children to the educational arrangements that their families choose. At the very least, when it came to education, they may once again be considered neighbors or fellow citizens. It would also reduce reasonable resentments when parents believe, very rightly, that their children are being forced to learn undesirable values or teachings, or that critical knowledge is being withheld from them in public schools.

However, wouldn't having a choice allow individuals to engage in fringe doctrines that radicalize children?

Significant radicalization is not what we observe in other places with more choice, and U.S. research overwhelmingly finds that private schools produce more tolerant, civically engaged, and knowledgeable citizens than public schools. And as the Capitol attack itself testifies, public schooling has not erased radicalization and may well have fueled it, with education matters such as interpreting American history – the New York Times’ “1619 Project” versus the Trump 1776 Commission – figuring prominently in angry national debates.

Indeed, of the now‐​68 rioters for whom we have found education information, only 5 attended private high schools, and 1 attended a private elementary school. 6 of 68 is 8.8 percent; less than the share of all students who have annually attended private versus public schools since 1995, which has fluctuated between 9.7 and 11.7 percent. Include homeschoolers to calculate the national private share – we did not find any homeschoolers among the rioters – and in the most recent federal data private education accounted for 12.5 percent of all students.

Obviously, this isn't conclusive. We don't have data on a lot of Capitol stormers, and we only have high school statistics on a lot of them. However, when this is combined with the corpus of empirical data showing that private schools generate more tolerant and civically aware kids, worries that choice would result in a more politicized or undemocratic society are unfounded.

All of this is to say that we cannot place all or even most of the responsibility for the toxic stew that resulted in the January 6 embarrassment on public education. There were a lot of potent factors in it, from globalization to plain old demagoguery, and private schoolers aren't immune to conflict or bloodshed. But, at the at least, we may infer that public education is not the panacea for social differences or political instability that its proponents depict it to be, and that it may well have contributed to the outburst of rage and lawlessness on January 6, 2021.

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